The Media and the Iraq War

David Remnick: I think the media has a share of responsibility for not getting at the nub of the most difficult question of all, in the beginning of the war, and that’s weapons of mass destruction. No one, save some pieces in Knight Ridder and a few other places, cast sufficient doubt of that crucial issue to halt that freight train that was the [George W.] Bush administration. And it was an ideological freight train.

I don’t think opinion journalism was going to halt that freight train of the [George W.] Bush administration. I think the only thing that could possibly, conceivably have derailed it is if somehow investigative reporting had discovered that the entire WMD thing was a sham. And it was a sham, and a historical sham.

And no one in a way sufficient and large enough, despite some excellent efforts, including Knight Ridder, clearly did that. 

I think clearly there’s been more self-laceration and self-examination in the journalistic world than in the White House.

You know I think that clearly if you take a publication like the New Yorker and ask if we got . . . collectively if we got the WMD question right, the answer is absolutely not. And then if you ask the question, “Were we light on the Bush administration?” I don’t think that is the case. I think that we have been positively brutal on the Bush administration in recent years – both in the investigative sense as well as the easier opinion sense. And it’s not just Seymour Hersh. It’s Jane Mayer. It’s George Packer. It’s any number of . . . any number of individual voices as well as the collective presentation of the magazine.

I’ll be very, very clear. I wrote one comment saying that the George [W.] Bush administration had not made a clear case to go to war in Iraq; but that Kenneth Pollack had made a much clearer case; and that if we’re going to go to war in Iraq, we need a case to be made. Rick Hertzberg was against the war in comment after comment after comment.

So the notion that we [The New Yorker] were pro war, I think is off base. This is not the National Review or the Washington Post editorial page. Even so, I think the comment that I wrote, in the view of hindsight, was totally off base. We had cover after cover that was critical.

And certainly the subsequent reporting that came after the war commenced, after the invasion, was extremely critical.

So the New Yorker is not an opinion magazine. It’s not the Nation on the left or the Weekly Standard on the right. The core of it is its reporting where politics is concerned. And there I deeply regret that we, like everybody else; and again there are reasons for this.

To review, it wasn’t just the American intelligence community that said there were WMD in Iraq. The Israelis, the Germans, the French all said that there had been WMD. And there was good reason for it because there had been, at a certain point, and they had been used against the Kurds; weapons used against the Israelis; invasion of a neighbor.

This [Iraq] was not exactly a nation known for its sense of international ethics of good behavior. And what’s more, Saddam Hussein wanted to fool his own hierarchy into thinking that it had these weapons in order to strengthen his hold on power. That’s how perverse he was, and that’s how hard a story that was to get. And for individual reporters to get that story when all these intelligence agencies were saying otherwise is, if not impossible, I think very difficult.


Recorded on Jan 7, 2008

The magazine's criticism of the George W. Bush administration made up for whatever The New Yorker missed in the lead-up to the war, says Remnick.

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